Prime ministers and oversize vegetables: It’s the news from Britain

Britain has a new prime minister, but before we get depressed let’s change the subject and talk about the man in Hampshire who grew the world’s longest cucumber–3’ 8”, or 1.12 meters if you prefer. It weighed 17 pounds, or 7.7 kilos. Or quite possibly both.

What’s the point of growing a vegetable that big? Well, you could make 400 cucumber sandwiches out of it, but only if you like cucumber sandwiches made with tasteless cukes and have a few hundred close friends who do. 

How do I know it’s tasteless? I don’t. It could be bitter. It could have the texture of cardboard packing material. What I do know (since the article I stole this from said so) is that it’s destined for the compost heap, not the table.

In the meantime, we still have that new prime minister. The last one’s been dumped on the compost heap, but only because we didn’t have the heart to deposit him where he belongs. The current one, I predict, will be as much use as a three-and-a-half-foot cucumber and do considerably more damage. Already she’s put someone who talks about “climate alarmism” in charge of energy and climate change. But then, to be fair, I don’t know that the job description specifies working against climate change. It may not. 

Okay, these are blackberries, not cucumbers, and they’re normal size, but this is as close as we get to a relevant photo around here.

 

What goes into a cucumber sandwich? 

Sliced cukes, preferably with the rind cut off. Butter (or cream cheese). Something herby or some black pepper. One recipe (not the one I’m linking to; it had too many popups) suggests a squeeze of lemon, which sounds like it’ll give you soggy bread, but hey, it’s your sandwich so do what you like. 

Put all that on white bread–lots of white bread–preferably with the crusts cut off so you don’t mistake your 400 sandwiches for anything colorful. Then cut them into triangles, giving you, um, 1,600 sandwich pieces, and you make a huge pot of tea.

If you arrange the triangles on tastefully bleak white plates, they will be practically invisible. 

 

But forget that. Let’s introduce the bike bus

Kids in a Glasgow primary school can ride the bike bus to school on Fridays.

A bike bus is basically a group of kids and parents moving through traffic like a school of fish. It was started by a parent who’d read about something similar in Barcelona. Because impatient drivers were becoming a problem, the lead bike is now rigged with a gizmo that changes the traffic light at a particularly messy intersection for long enough for 50 or so riders to cross. 

Interviews with the kids were predictably informative. One likes ringing his bell. Another likes talking to her friend on the way to school. And a third has a new bike and it’s red and orange. 

 

What’s happening in the rest of the world?

Well, researchers at the University of Michigan (which is not in Britain) have developed a wind turbine blade that can be recycled into gummy bears.

I’m tempted to stop there, leaving you with an image of gummy bears mysteriously falling from the sky in a disorganized gummy rainbow when the blades reach the end of their first life. But (however briefly) I’m having a responsible moment, so I’ll explain.

The blades are made from a mix of glass fibers, a plant-based polymer, and a synthetic polymer. When the blades are ready to be replaced, instead of joining that great wind turbine in the sky, they break down (with a little help from an alkaline solution) into their component parts, which can be used to make new turbine blades, or tail lights, or gummy bears, or sports drinks. To demonstrate how safe that is, one of the researchers, John Dorgan, publicly ate a gummy bear they’d made.

“A carbon atom derived from a plant, like corn or grass, is no different from a carbon atom that came from a fossil fuel,” he said. “It’s all part of the global carbon cycle, and we’ve shown that we can go from biomass in the field to durable plastic materials and back to foodstuffs.”

Turbine blades can be as much as half the length of a football field, making them an awkward addition to a landfill. 

Is that a US football field or what the rest of the world calls a football field and Americans insist is a soccer field? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure how the sizes of the two fields compare. What I do know is that the new blades can be recycled endlessly. Unless you eat them. 

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The urine of the Southeast Asian binturong smells like buttered popcorn. Why is that true? Because they both contain 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which smells the same whether it’s at the movies or being excreted onto dead leaves. 

Did you need to know that? Probably not, but now that you do you can’t unknow it–at least not unless memory does its loving job of erasing it for you.

You can thank the Encyclopedia Britannica’s “One Good Fact” email newsletter for that gem, and I can’t give you a link because it doesn’t work that way. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

 

Copyright news

The copyright’s expiring on some of the classic modern novels, and that means you can buy cheap editions online. 

What do you get for your money? Less than you’d expect, according to a recent (if February is recent) article. An edition of The Great Gatsby ends mid-paragraph and three pages before the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, thought it did.

Another edition is dedicated not to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, as the original was, but to “Logan and Olivia Barbrook / May your lives be filled with wonderful stories, great adventures and happily-ever-afters, Love Mummy.”

Which somehow doesn’t sound like Fitzgerald. 

One edition changes Fitzgeralds line “At any rate, Miss Baker’s lips fluttered” to “Anyway, Miss Baker’s lipped frizzed.”

Then there’s the cover. One edition showed a couple next to something that looks more or less like a 1980s Dodge Charger. That’s prescient for a book first published in 1925. It’s enough to make your lips frizz.

 

Let’s go back to oversize vegetables

In Nebraska, Duane Hansen paddled 38 miles down the Missouri River in the hollowed-out 846-pound pumpkin that he grew. 

“I probably won’t try this again,” he said, since it was a little cramped in there. However, no politicians were harmed in the setting of what is unquestionably a world record.

 

In which we see humanity at its best

Somewhere above Europe, two Air France pilots got in a fistfight in the cockpit. The cabin crew heard the noise, went in, and broke up the fight, with one of them staying in the cockpit until the plane landed to keep the pilots in their seats and flying the plane.

The BBC tells us that France’s air investigation body said the airline’s culture “lacked rigor when it came to safety procedures.”

What foods are native to Britain

Every so often, somebody starts a campaign to run some non-native plant out of Britain. With a few, that makes sense–when they got loose in this new climate they turned hazardous, choking out native growth, growing through the foundations of houses, running for parliament so they can run other non-native plants out of the country. But setting those few aside, the rest of it, I suspect, is about returning Britain to some imagined state of purity. 

But what really is native? For the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with food.

This comes with a warning: The further back in time we go, the sketchier the notes people left behind. So I can’t guarantee 600% accuracy. Take it–as is appropriate for food–with a grain of salt.

 

A rare relevant photo: St. John’s Wort, which isn’t used as a food but is traditionally medicinal. It’s native to Britain but a couple of varieties were introduced in the 17th century. So it’s native but also not. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

Imports

The first chicken bones show up in the Bronze Age–around 800 B.C.E. That makes them–not to mention their eggs–foreigners.

The Romans (start counting in 43 C.E.) brought rabbits, pheasants, and brown hare (not to be confused with brown hair, which was already present). Also cabbages, leeks, onions, garlic, basil, thyme, turnips, walnuts, and grapes. And alexanders, which went wild. Foragers still eat them and everyone else pretty much ignores them. They’re sometimes called wild celery. 

Incomers, the lot of them.

As an aside, by the time we get to the medieval era, cabbage was peasants’ food and not fit for the upper classes. It was thought to cause melancholy and nightmares but also to cure drunkenness. 

According to one source the Saxon word for February was Sprout Kale–the month when the cabbages sprout. If you’re not a fan of kale, you can blame it on the Saxons. It won’t be fair, but it’ll keep your mind off worse things. (Another source says it was April, but it’s outvoted. Let’s go with February. It’s shorter, and I’m not a big fan of kale.)

You won’t find sugar until 1099–or at least you won’t find it mentioned until then–and for a long time it was the wildest of luxuries. From the 12th century through the 15th, you’ll find monasteries cultivating apples and pears. Or you’d find them if you could get back there. They would’ve been luxuries.

Turkeys and rice showed up in the Tudor period, and potatoes, corn, and tomatoes didn’t arrive until Europeans started bothering the New World. 

Beets–or as the British call them, beetroot–probably came from the Mediterranean. Broccoli showed up around 1700, chocolate bars around 1847, and baked beans in 1886.

Yes, I did switch from raw ingredients to processed food. You’ve got to keep an eye on me every minute. I’ll pull a fast one on you every time.

 

Native foods

Wild carrots do grow in Britain and as far as I can untangle things they’re native, but a foraging guide describes them as tough and stringy. You’d want to put these in stews, not eat them raw. The plant they come from is also called Queen Anne’s lace and looks a lot like hemlock, which is toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend munching your way through the hedgerows hoping to figure out which is which. 

Cultivated carrots seem to have wandered into England in Elizabethan times, so they’re not exactly native. Emphasis on seems. I got that from a site whose information appears to be solid but whose writing is murky. 

Peas? Probably native, although some people argue that the Romans brought them. 

Of course, someone out there would surely argue that the Romans brought Nintendo. I’d make the argument myself, but I’m trying to keep this brief. 

Cultivated peas are related to vetches, a category of wildflower that does well in Britain without human interference. The early ones would’ve been smaller than the peas we know, and probably bitterer. And if we’re to judge from that last adjective, harder to pronounce. The best thing to do with them would’ve been to put them in pottage–something eaten widely in medieval Britain and varied enough that if you think of it as anything that can be tossed in a pot and cooked with liquid, you won’t go too far wrong. 

It’s not until you get into Tudor times that peas become sweeter and the elite start eating them as a delicacy.

Oats, rye, wheat, and barley are all native. As is brewing alcohol from at least some of them and getting shitfaced. 

Native fruits would’ve been small purple plums, sloes, wild currants, brambles (that means blackberries), raspberries, wood strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, redberries (no idea what this is; they’re probably red), heather berries (Lord Google tells me they’re edible but nasty), elderberries, rowan berries (edible if cooked; toxic when raw), haws, and hips (that’s probably rose hips). To summarize, the native fruits ran the gamut from delicious to nasty.

The wild apple, crabapple, and cherry would might have been rare or absent, although the British apple seems to have predated the Romans. You notice how much of a workout the word probably is getting? Not as much as it should’, I expect. 

We haven’t talked about the nuts and leaves, but let’s skip them, okay? 

Saffron in Britain: a quick history

People in fourteenth-century Europe were desperate to get their hands on saffron, which they used, among other things, as a medicine against the plague. Or they were if they could afford it, which most people couldn’t because it was wildly expensive, so let’s add “rich” before “people” in that sentence. It was expensive enough that pirates often preferred saffron to gold–it was worth more and easier to lift.

C’mon, even pirates can get bad backs.

 

How saffron got to England

According to legend, saffron got to England as an illegal immigrant, traveling inside a Crusader’s hollow staff. He picked it up, still according to legend, returning from the Middle East by way of Spain, and if you’re a fan of irony, you might enjoy knowing that it was  the Arabs–the people that hollow-staffed Crusader would’ve been fighting–who brought saffron to Spain so he could steal some.

Why did the Crusader (in a sanitized version of the tale,he was a pilgrim) have to smuggle it? Because he’d stolen it. Places that produced saffron wanted to prevent competition, so for example Basel (which admittedly wasn’t in Spain, even during the Crusades) made it illegal to take a corm out of the city and guards protected the plants when they were growing.

A rare relevant photo: The ones in the foreground are crocuses.

Was that true in Spain? Dunno. It’s a legend. Let’s slip that illegal corm into a pocket and move on before anyone notices the geographical switcheroo.

What’s all this corm business, though? 

Well, kiddies, saffron comes from the crocus plant–the Crocus stativus–which grows from a corm. And a corm is what you and I, in our ignorance, would probably call a bulb. The difference is that a corm is–oh, hell, it’s complicated. A corm is rounder than a bulb and it’s solid. That’s enough to let us pretend we know something. 

You can probably smuggle a corm inside a hollow staff if you don’t pound it around too much and if you just happen to have a hollow staff on hand, but whatever happened took place outside the range of the CCTV cameras, so we’ll never know for sure. 

A different version of saffron’s British history has it landing in Cornwall multiple centuries earlier, not necessarily as a corm but in the form of a spice that could be traded again and again for Cornish tin. As far back as three thousand years ago, Cornwall was trading with the Middle East, so it’s entirely possible that tin was traded for saffron, but the ice is getting thin here and we might want to scuttle back to shore before we break through.  

Before I dump a new subread on you, though, I should explain that the word sativus in Crocus sativus doesn’t mean the saffron crocus is related to Cannabis sativa. Sativa or sativus is Latin for cultivated, not for formerly illegal and still mind bending.

 

How to get from crocus to saffron 

So much for legend. What’s clear is that saffron arrived in England (and by this time Cornwall was part of England), and from the fourteenth century onwards it was an important commodity. It was used in dying, in cooking, and in medicines, and (sorry to repeat myself) it was and is incredibly expensive. These days, it’s the world’s most expensive spice. 

That’s not because it’s rare or hard to grow–make a crocus plant happy and it will spread all on its own–but because you only use a small part of it to make saffron. According to the Britannica“What we use . . . is actually the stigma (plural stigmata)—the pollen-germinating part—at the end of the red pistil, the female sex organ of the plant.” 

Harvesting those tiny little sex organs (try not to think about it; you’ll be happier) involves crawling along the ground and cutting a very low-growing flower, then throwing away most of it. Along the way, you have to separate the stigmata (each plant has three) and their stems (those are the pistils) and dry them. 

Do that with 75,000 plants (or 150,000, depending on your source) and you’ve got yourself a pound of saffron. In 2018, that pound sold for $5,000. 

The next most expensive spice, vanilla, sold for $600.

 

Could we get back to English history, please?

Fine. If we can agree that the stuff’s expensive, we’re ready to go back and look at it as a luxury item.

Starting in the fourteenth century, England became a major producer of saffron, and the chalky soil of Essex and south Cambridgeshire turned out to be well suited to it. Smallholders–people raising crops on small amounts of land–who’d once been subsistence farmers planted it as a cash crop, probably not replacing all the crops they lived on but as an addition. An acre planted in crocuses could bring in £6–a hefty amount of money at the time. Saffron became so important to the local economy that the town of Chipping (or Chepyng–they couldn’t spell for shit back then, but it  meant market) Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden.

According to the historian Rowland Parker, successful cultivation depended heavily on unpaid labor, which was a major part of the farm economy for a couple of the centuries we’re talking about. Serfs owed labor to their lords. Smallholders had families, preferably large ones. 

I relied on WikiWhatsia for that. I avoid it when I can, but I’m tired this week and can’t be bothered. My apologies to the world at large. In general, it’s as reliable as the grown-up encyclopedias, but when it fucks up it can do it spectacularly. And I did confirm a few bits, so the entry looks reliable, at least at the moment.

The Cambridge colleges used saffron heavily. Smallholders who rented land from them could pay their rent in it, and some of the colleges used it to pay their own bills, making it a kind of currency. 

But currency or not, academics also used it in food and as medicine. And they sprinkled it on floors and tossed it into their fires (talk about burning money) as a disinfectant. That was probably just a few academics–the richest ones, making a point of being the richest ones.

 

Nothing lasts forever, though, does it?

Change came in response to several things. As the spice trade grew, other offerings became available, and they weren’t only new and exciting, they were cheaper. The elite could spend their money on vanilla, tea, chocolate, and coffee. All of those were outrageous luxuries for a while.

Saffron? That was so last century.

Synthetic dyes also began to replace natural ones. And as the wage economy grew, people left the countryside and that pool of unpaid labor wasn’t around to dip a seasonal bucket into. Growers replaced saffron with the newly introduced crops: potatoes and corn. 

Corn? Sorry. I’m still basically American. The British call it maize, since they call pretty much any old grain corn

If that list of changes doesn’t sound like enough to explain saffron’s decline, consider the Puritans, who wandered in to disapprove of this saffron-burning culture of excess. They wanted their clothing plain, their food plain, and their fires unbothered by show-off gestures. 

Saffron cultivation and usage declined, but in Cornwall, saffron buns and saffron cakes are a long-standing tradition. 

How long-standing? The sources I’ve found hide behind some vague wording about them being traditional, which means they don’t have to commit themselves on how far back the tradition goes.

 

Saffron Buns

I haven’t posted a recipe in an age, but I do make a mean saffron bun–and if you don’t speak American, mean in this context is a good thing. In spite of my accent, they sell well at bake sales and the local farmer’s market.

Don’t be put off by what I said about the cost of saffron. You won’t be buying it by the pound. All you’ll need is a pinch. 

 

Ingredients

A large pinch of saffron

300 grams of bread flour (or whatever substitutes for that where you live)

65 grams of butter, softened

25 grams of sugar

1 tsp yeast (use fast acting–it’s easier)

90 grams currants (or raisins if need be)

45 grams of candied peel (I never do get around to adding this)

Milk (the recipe I started with calls for 120 milliliters, but I always need more)

 

What to do with the ingredients

Crush the saffron and soak it in just enough boiling water to cover it. Cut the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, salt, yeast, and fruit. Add the saffron, in its water, and enough milk to form a dough. Don’t let it get too wet, because the buns have to hold their shape. 

Knead it until it’s silky–about 10 minutes by hand, about 5 in a mixer. Cover and let it rise. How long will depend on the temperature of your kitchen, but if you have to punch it down and let it rise again, it’ll be fine. 

Cut into 8 pieces and form into rolls. Bake them on a cookie sheet–called a baking tray in Britain–and use greaseproof paper or baking parchment if you have it. Otherwise, oil the tray. 

Let them rise half an hour or so, until the dough has a little spring in it.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes at 170 C. (that’s 350 F., give or take a bit). To check if they’re done, turn one over and tap the bottom. It should sound vaguely drumlike.

Cool. Butter. Eat. Toast if that appeals to you.

A quick history of the English breakfast

Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.” 

Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is. 

Or possibly how odd any country is.

Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?

I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then. 

The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long. 

But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.

Irrelevant photo: a slightly battered rose, blooming in February.

Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”

I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that. 

So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.

 

First, who were the gentry?

To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.

The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.  

But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.

Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.

No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed. 

But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion. 

Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.

Cue a grand spread for breakfast.

Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.

 

The tale of the English breakfast, version two

In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale. 

Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.

By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can. 

By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.

If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended. 

By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance. 

 

The current components of an English breakfast

What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid. 

Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.

So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.

There’s no accounting for taste. 

As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.

And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.

Eventually  the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. 

Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.

I know. It’s tough.

Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.

During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.

But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.

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If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.

You can find it at The Bookseller.

Bread in medieval England: an update

A quick update for anyone whose imagination was captured by the post on medieval bread making: Aleksandra from the Evendine Sourdough Bakery sent a photo of a trencher loaf she made (and served with pottage) for a medieval event in Evesham. I can only wish I’d been there.

She was working from a recipe in Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering the Cuisine of the Past, by Maria Dembinska.

Trencher loaf, made by Evendine Bakery.

Bread in medieval England

Bread was medieval England’s most important food. So much so that it gave us our words for lord (from the Anglo-Saxon “loaf-guardian,” or hlafward) and lady (“loaf-maker,” or hlaefdige). 

No, I can’t turn those into anything remotely lady- or lordlike, but they do both have an L and a D. Unless a genuine linguist or someone who learned Anglo-Saxon weighs in (and we do have one or two around here somewhere, so it’s not impossible), that’s as close as we’re likely to get. 

In the meantime, by way of proof I don’t have to mispronounce, records from medieval England, France, and Italy show soldiers, workmen, and hospital patients eating two pounds of bread a day. Or two to three pounds according to another source. That’s the same amount the nobility ate. 

So working people ate as well as the nobility? The hell they did. It’s just that aristocrats had access to meat and fish that the lower ranks could only dream of, while working people supplemented their bread with pottage.

What was pottage? If you think of it as anything that’s available, boiled, you won’t go too far wrong. April Munday did an interesting series of blog posts about making pottage from her garden, depending on what was in season and what would have been available in medieval England. The link above will take you to one of them.  

Irrelevant photo: Another of those tall white flowers I can’t identify. In fact, a whole field of them.

But everyone ate bread. Lots of bread. And the kind you ate was still a reliable marker of your class. The darker and heavier your bread, the lower down you stood in the social rankings.

No bread recipes have come down to us from the medieval period. One historian says this is because most bread was baked professionally. Others say it was so common that no recipes were needed. Which brings us to our next section:

 

A warning on sources

I’m using a range of sources here, and a lot of them are books. Remember books? They’re lovely things, but it means I’ll be short on links today. When I’m lucky, a range of sources will fill in blanks that others left, but this time they contradict each other in the most authoritative possible ways. 

We’re covering a long period of time here, from the early Anglo-Saxon era to the end of the Middle Ages, and that could account for some contradictions. Regional differences could account for others. After that, all I can offer you is a reminder that we weren’t there and social history’s a fragmentary thing. It examines things that are often considered too unimportant to document or too obvious to notice. So I’ll just throw this whole contradictory mess your way and leave you as confused as I am.

Don’t you just love being here? You read damn near two thousand words and come away knowing less than when you started.

 

A few kinds of bread

White bread was the good stuff. I’ve seen it called by a range of names, including manchet, wastell, paindemain, even  cake–a word with a Scandinavian origin that meant a small, flat bread roll. 

Paindemain–from the French for “hand bread”–may have been called that to distinguish it from trenchers, which we’ll get to later. 

The best white bread was made with the hardest and best sieved wheat flour, ground on the hardest stones so that it had the least grit in it. (Grit from grinding stones was part of cheaper bread, and some historians say a lifetime of eating it wore people’s teeth down.) It was raised with ale barm–yeast from brewing–which gives the best rise but is also unpredictable and in unskilled hands can go wrong, giving us the word barmy.

Yeast generally came from brewing beer, something that was done at home, or at least in many homes. It wasn’t universally used until the Renaissance, according to one source.

Even the loaf keeper and the loaf maker (that’s the lord and lady, in case you haven’t been taking notes) might not have had white bread every day.

Household bread was for the people a step down in the household. It was made with whole wheat flour, which might have been mixed with rye or barley. It was raised with leaven–a bit of yeasted dough saved from an earlier batch. Some books on bread baking still suggest doing this to improve the bread’s taste, although modern recipes rely on commercial yeast to do the heavy lifting.

Brown bread was made for farm workers and the lowest servants, from a mix of barley, dried peas, malt, and some whole wheat or rye flour. It was what we’d call sourdough: left overnight in a sour trough, where it picked up yeast left from earlier batches of dough. We may worship at the altar of sourdough today, but the taste wasn’t appreciated in the Middle Ages, and according to Pen Vogler in Scoff, the flour was likely to go off and given the bread a rancid taste. (Wheat germ has nutritional value but it goes bad easily. That was another benefit of white bread.)

Horse bread was what it said on the tin, food for horses, but not many people could read and tins hadn’t been invented yet anyway. In the face of famine or less widespread hard times, people ate horse bread, but it was an act of desperation.

According to a paper by Jessica Banks of Penn State University, bread could include not just rye and peas but also chestnuts, acorns, lentils, or rice. 

Rice? Yup. Starting in the eighth century, rice was grown in Spain and then in northern Italy as well. In England, it was an imported luxury and was considered the most nutritious of all grains. This wasn’t something for the poor to add to their bread. It’s not something I’ve added to bread myself and I can’t tell you what effect it has. I’d be surprised if it improves it.

For most of those, though, if you add large amounts to your bread  it won’t rise as well. Barley bread was considered second-best enough that Anglo-Saxon saints could flaunt their humility by eating it. 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, in The Year 1000, the bread of the early Middle Ages would have been round, coarse flatbread, and much of it would have been stale enough that you’d dip it in your pottage in self-defense. Outside the towns and cities, they say, there wouldn’t have been any call for specialized bakers baking fresh bread every day.

On the other hand, Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, says bread was cooked on a pan over a fire–a quick and logical way to bake flatbreads–or in the ashes of a fire. I’m inclined to go with Crawford on this. I’ve made flatbread. You don’t need an oven. (They weren’t introduced until the sixth century anyway.)

Another source says it was also cooked in the embers of a fire. As long as you turned it often enough, this worked. 

 

Ovens

The medieval peasant’s home had an open hearth and the fire burned on a flat rock–sometimes for decades, because starting a fire from scratch involved a lot of scratching of flint on iron or wood on wood. 

An oven, though? That would’ve been expensive, and if you could afford one you’d build it outside the house. In a town, you might build it outside the town walls. Fire was a constant threat. The Great Fire of London may have been well after the medieval period, but it started in a bakery all the same.

If you had an oven, though, you’d heat it before the food went in, then rake out the fire and put the food in, leaving the oven to cool slowly. In If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley describes having baked this way. They soaked a wooden door in water to close the oven (that kept it from catching fire) and sealed the gaps with dough. When the seal was cooked, so was the bread inside, and just enough heat was left to bake biscuits–a word that comes from the French for “second cooked.”

Or just possibly for “cooked second.” My French is somewhere between iffy and iffier, but I do know when a phrase sounds better in English.

All of this was a lot of work and not something you’d want to do for a loaf or two. You’d bake either a lot of loaves–a community’s worth of them–or none. On many manors, the lord had a bakehouse and tenants had to pay if they were going to use it. 

Ian Mortimer, in The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, says that the yeoman’s wife (remember, please, that yeo-people ranged from poor to rich) might have had her own oven but might also have taken her ground grain to the village baker every week or so. That seems to say that she wouldn’t mix or shape her own dough, although other writers have people bringing their loaves to the baker.

In towns and cities, though, people bought their bread ready made, and as guilds formed, bakers organized themselves separately into one guild for the bakers of white bread and another for the bakers of brown bread. It wasn’t until Liz the First came along that–at her insistence–they merged into a single guild.

 

Why use wheat?

Vogler makes an interesting point about England’s reliance on bread: It’s complicated to make. You have to not just grow and harvest the grain but thresh it (back-breaking work if it’s done by hand), grind it (by hand in the early Anglo-Saxon period; mostly by water mills by the time of the Norman conquest), sieve it, mix it into dough, raise it, and bake it. All of this in a country that’s not ideal for growing wheat, which wants a long, dry growing season. That rules out the north and west of the country, she says, and it doesn’t sound like the rest of the place is ideal either.

Why didn’t people rely more heavily on rye, as large parts of northern Europe did? Or like the Scots and the northern fringe of England, on oats? 

Maybe it was the allure of that light, white bread that the best wheat could produce. Maybe it was just because. Humans are a strange species.

 

Trenchers

I’ve read several explanations of what trenchers were and how they were used, and everyone at least agrees they were bread used as plates. Some writers say they were a way to use up stale bread. Others say they were thin, unleavened loaves, baked for this purpose. One says they were the blackened bottom of the loaf, because the oven couldn’t ever be cleaned completely. This was cut off and given to lower members of the household, leaving us with the phrase “the upper crust”–the people who got the top half of the loaf. 

Some say the trenchers were fed to pigs after they were used. Some say that if a household was rich enough, they’d give the used trenchers to the poor. Some say they were eaten as part of the meal. I have no evidence for this, but I’d put my money on them usually being eaten, because making bread’s a lot of work and uses a fair bit of fuel. You can feed pigs something a lot less complicated and they’ll still put on weight. Medieval people didn’t waste food.

Giving used trenchers to the poor, though, might have been a way to demonstrate your wealth as well as perform an act of charity.

The most convincing comment on trenchers is from Medieval Cookery, which says about feasts that “the common belief is that after the diners were finished with their food, the used trencher was given to the poor. While there is some documentation supporting this belief, it is somewhat confusing and may be open to question.”

*

This post is in response to an email from the baker at Evandine Sourdough Bakery, asking about medieval bread. It’s not a topic I’d thought about. Thanks for suggesting it, Aleksandra. I hope at least some of this is what you were looking for.

Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus

 

How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 

 

History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 

 

So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.

When England reluctantly adopted the fork

Although you can still find Britons who measure other people’s intelligence, level of civilization, and general acceptability by whether they use a fork and knife in the approved manner (and of course there’s only one), the fork first arrived in Britain to the sound of mockery and jeering. 

Unlike the knife and the spoon, the fork doesn’t seem to be one of those things early humans felt a strong urge to invent. 

According to the Smithsonian website, prehistoric humans made spoons out of shells or wood depending what was on hand. 

Forks, though? A few early ones have been found, but the design says they weren’t meant to eat with. They had two or three straight tines, and they were meant to hold something down while you cut it, or maybe work something reluctant out of its shell.

Irrelevant photo: a morning view of the fields.

 

 

The fork dawdles on its way to England

The fork came to Britain by way of Europe, and since this was before the European Union and also before either social media and influencers, it took its own sweet time. 

It got to Europe in the eleventh century by way of a couple of Byzantine princesses who married 1) a Venetian doge and 2) a Holy Roman Emperor. Both sent their new subjects (and probably their husbands) into shock by bringing forks with them and then using them to carry food to their mouths. 

What was so horrifying about using a fork?

Well, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers,” according to one of the Venetians.  

I just love the religious habit of knowing what god wants. It holds up so well over time. 

The princess who married the doge died of the plague a few years later and Saint Peter Damian announced that it was god’s punishment for her vanity. 

By the fourteenth century, though, forks were common among merchants. 

Why merchants? 

Why not merchants? It’s beside the point, so we’ll just duck left and avoid that rabbit hole. And while we’re at it, we’ll hop over to England and into the sixteenth century. By then the fork had paddled across the Channel and if you wanted to make fun of someone for being pretentious, all you had to do was associate them with the fork. In Scoff, her book on food and class in Britain, Pen Vogler cites a couple of plays that use them that way.

How did decent people eat?

With their fingers, of course. With their bread. With a knife. Presumably with a spoon, although we won’t find a lot of documentation of spoons early on in English history. The first one mentioned is in Edward I’s wardrobe accounts in 1259. But whether they made it into the written record or not, food that’s cooked needs to be stirred. And food that’s runny doesn’t take well to being eaten with a knife, or even the fingers, although it gets along well enough with bread. 

The poor, Vogler reminds us, would mostly have eaten bread and pottage (a stew made mostly of grain, beans, and vegetables, in whatever combination was available). Fingers and (maybe) a spoon would’ve been plenty. 

The aristocracy would’ve had a servant to pour water over their hands before they ate and they’d have cut and speared their food with a knife and used a combination of bread and fingers for anything that couldn’t be speared and didn’t need to be cut. So they were fussier about it, but they were still eating with their fingers.

Soups and stews were served in communal bowls, which everyone in reach could dip into. Or so says the Royal Museums Greenwich website. (The link’s above). They wiped their hands on the tablecloths, which were plain linen but damned expensive because everything was handmade, remember. How anyone got the tablecloths clean is beyond me.

Forks were strictly for carving, and even that may have caught on slowly. In 1673, Hannah Woolley felt she needed to encourage gentlewomen to carve and serve meat with a fork. 

“It will appear very comely and decent,” she wrote, to use a fork instead of holding the mean with two fingers and the thumb of the left hand. 

And I thought my manners were a little rough. 

 

The triumph of the fork

By the time of the Restoration (that’s 1660 to 1666; thank you, Lord G.), matching forks, knives, and spoons were in use among the upper class. This was fancy stuff and it was all part of a rejection of Puritan plainness. Many sets came with a sheath–a sort of travel case–so if you were invited to a fancy dinner you could bring your own. Even in upper class circles, you couldn’t count on your hosts having enough silverware for a party. 

The forks involved were still two-tine type. A third tine was added in the eighteenth century, and by this time silverware was being mass produced (in Sheffield, in case you’re interested). If you were trying to claw your way into the upper classes, you’d need a whole set of the stuff. But you’d want to show that you’d gotten the right silverware, so the style was to lay it face down and show off the silver hallmark. 

When it wasn’t in use, you’d keep it in a fancy wooden box, sort of like dueling pistols. 

Silverware defined the aristocratic life, and starting in the 1820s the kind of novel that gave readers a glimpse of that world was called the silver fork novel.

By Victorian times, cutlery had moved down the social scale, so the upper classes had to complicate their dinner tables to keep from being confused with their underlings. You needed one kind of fork for oysters, another for lobster, another for snails, for fish, for pastry, for dessert (pastry isn’t dessert? Don’t ask me; I’m a barbarian), for berries, for serving bread. And god help the diner (or worse, the hostess) who didn’t know which to use for what. Toss them into the outer darkness.

By now, damn everything had to be eaten with a fork. If you were served jellied something that wobbled and demonstrated a desire to return to a liquid form? Tough. You ate it with a fork. A banana? You could use your knife to help slice it, but you had to eat it with a fork. 

Crystallized cherries? You weren’t supposed to use a knife on them, only a fork. I’m not sure what you were supposed to do with the pits. Swallow them? Definitely not spit them at the person sitting across the table, although it might’ve broken the tension.

What’s a crystallized cherry? No idea. It involves sugar. And a cherry. 

Now can we let’s leave the upper class struggling unhappily with their crystalized cherries and their forks and see what’s happened to the folks who we last saw eating pottage with their fingers and their bread–and possibly their spoons?

Sure we can. We make our own rules here. Spit the cherry pits if you want to. Just clean them up before you leave.

In 1906, free school meals were offered to the poorest students, although only where the local government saw fit. You know how it is: You feed them once and they only want to eat the next day, so may a  local government didn’t see the point. (Universal education until the age of ten had been introduced in 1880, and a lot of people didn’t see the point of that either.)

With the introduction of free school meals, teachers discovered that their students weren’t used to using a knife and fork or to eating at a table. 

I can’t help thinking that they were used to the idea that parents couldn’t afford to feed their kids. But not to teach them to eat properly? Now that was serious.

 

Class and the fork

In the 1920s,  stainless steel made cutlery affordable enough for the mass market. So ow the upper class needed a new way to keep themselves from being mistaken from the kind of people who’d spit cherry pits. The proper way to use the knife and fork, if you’re hanging around the upper classes–or the well-behaved middle classes–is to hold your fork upside down. No, that doesn’t mean you hold onto the tines and eat with the handle. You hold the handle, but instead of letting the hollow face upward, as logic dictates, you hold it so the hump faces up and all the food you can’t spear slides off. 

Why? So the upper classes can keep their tables free from cherry-pit spitters. It’s a kind of secret handshake, only everyone knows it. It’s just that some of us can’t be bothered using it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it. Or can’t remember it for the length of a meal.

The people this matters to take it painfully seriously, though. Hold your fork the logical way and you’re (you’ll need to read this next phrase in a disapproving voice) scooping your food. Or even worse, shoveling it. You might get mistaken for someone who eats because they’re hungry.

Vogler quotes Debrett’s–the ultimate British guide to class snobbery–on this: “It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.”

Yes, they’re serious.

How to bake brownies and improve intercultural understanding

Britain and the United States have a special relationship, and in the interest of strengthening it I’m offering you a brownie recipe. Recipes not only build intercultural understanding, they’re entirely noncaloric. Even if we never try them–and let’s face it, most of us don’t–reading them fills us with an unreasonable hum of calorie-free happiness. 

And since this is a calorie-free post, we’ll go for the richest one in my considerable stash of brownie recipes. 

But before I go on, a word about the special relationship: The thing that makes it so special is that Britain knows what it is and the U.S. doesn’t. In Britain, it’s known as the special relationship. In the U.S., it’s known as um, what?

It’s a bit like one person being in a marriage and the other one not. You don’t get more special than that.

But it does mean that the two countries really could understand each other better. So let’s not start with the hard stuff, like whether we’re talking about a relationship, a quick fling, or an open marriage. Let’s start with food, because everybody needs to eat.

Looking west from a British beach. The U.S. is out there somewhere.

By way of unnecessary background, brownies are (a) American and (b) much admired in Britain. The village I live in has an underground economy that runs on favors and I negotiate my way through it (mostly) in brownies. I know, I’m reinforcing a stereotype and I shouldn’t, but it’s so easy this way.

Brownies are also (c) much  misunderstood in Britain, where you can call anything edible, rectangular, and brown a brownie. Then you can hide it under ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce and no one will think it’s strange. Or–with all that stuff running interference–notice what the brownie itself tastes like.

Or be sure it’s there at all.

Having said that, the recipe that I promise I’ll get around to eventually is British and comes to you by way of a beachside cafe in Trebarwith Strand. The place has, tragically, changed hands, but before that happened it sold a fantastic brownie, which didn’t come buried under a bunch of irrelevant foodstuffs.

And what’s better, it sold a booklet with a handful of recipes, from which I’ve taken this. 

By way of further unnecessary background, the only part of a recipe that can be copyrighted (she said defensively) is the way it’s written. The proportions and methods? Can’t be done. So this is fair game.

Being British means the recipe’s metric. So if you’re in the U.S. of we-use-cup-measurements A., sorry, sorry, and sorry. Over here in the Olde Worlde, you weigh your ingredients. In milllithingies, which are more reliable than using cups and liquid ounces because they stay the same from country to country, which cups and so forth don’t. 

I’d translate the millithingies for you, but you don’t want a recipe where I’ve been turned loose with the numbers. Really, you don’t. Lord Google can manage it for you if you feed him the millithingies one by one.

The recipe doesn’t include whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or chopped broccoli to top the brownie. It doesn’t even have frosting. Good brownies don’t need frosting. So the brownies this makes won’t be beautiful, but they will be good.

Trebarwtih Brownies

200 grams butter (salted, unsalted, deep fried, whatever you’ve got)

350 grams dark chocolate (in Britain, 70%; in the U.S., never mind; settle for dark)

250 grams dark brown sugar (or light brown; I can’t be bothered keeping both on hand)

3 eggs 

1 tsp. baking powder

70 grams flour ( in Britain, that’s plain flour)

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat. Beat the eggs and the sugar together and stir them into the melted chocolate mix. Sift the flour and baking powder together–or if you’re as lazy a cook as I am, just whisk them together. I can’t tell the difference. Stir them into everything else. 

Oil a square pan and line it with baking paper or greaseproof paper, which may or may not be the same thing but do the same job. If you cut the paper so it overlaps the pan on two sides, you’ll be able to lift the brownies out neatly. If you don’t line the pan, you’ll end up with some delicious brownie hash. Which is not to be confused with hash brownies. 

Scrape the batter into the pan. Lick the scraper. Do not, under any circumstances, share.

Bake at 160 C. if you have a fan oven or 180 C. if you have a regular one, or 350 F. if you’re in the U.S., which doesn’t speak Centigrade. Depending on the size of your pan, bake for somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour. My pan’s 8 ¼ inches (21 cm) square and the time leans toward a full hour. Stick a knife into the center to see if it’s done. If the middle’s set or just a bit gooey, that’s fine. If it’s disgusting, that’s not so fine: Stick it back in the oven. 

I know. I used to count on recipes being exact–or at least pretending to be exact. When they didn’t work out the way they were supposed to, it was reassuring to think that someone somewhere was certain and any changes were my fault. 

Any changes aren’t your fault. Either they’re mine or that’s just how life is. Or how baking is. But we’ve already agreed that you don’t have to actually bake these. Baking is what causes calories.

Does our relationship feel more special now?

A perfectly ordinary cheese scone recipe

Nothing (except possibly moaning or rain; or curry) is more British than scones, so let’s take a break from moaning about the coronavirus for a scone recipe. Recipes aren’t  what I do here at Notes, but what the hell, who’s watching?

You will need: 

An oven

A rolling pin

A kitchen, which will, now that I think about it, probably come with an oven, so skip the first item on the list.

A bunch of other stuff that we’ll get to in time.

I only mention all that because I’ve read enough recipe blogs to know that you can’t just give readers the recipe and shut up. You have to fill space. You have to build some kind of excitement. If you don’t do that, readers won’t think they’ve gotten their money’s worth, even though it’s free. And of course, you have to insert photos showing the ingredients gathered lovingly in a spotless kitchen, the process broken into seventeen simple steps, and the resulting whatever-it-is looking so beautiful that cagey readers will suspect you shellacked it. 

A wonderfully appealing and ever so slightly out of focus illustration: Every baking project ends in dirty dishes.

You also have to claim that your recipe makes the world’s best-ever whatevers.

How many bests can this crowded planet hold? How many best-evers does eternity have space for? Look, I think the recipe’s good or I wouldn’t bother you with it, but it’s just a recipe. I’m sure someone else’s is just as good, or better. The world’s full of recipes. Let’s not kid ourselves that this one (or anyone else’s) going to make our lives perfect or our kitchens immaculate. It’s food. Food is lovely stuff, but once you eat it, it’s gone. 

Okay. I’ve filled the requisite amount of space. Here’s the recipe.

Cheese Scones: makes 6 to 8

Ingredients:

Flour (that’s plain flour if you bake in British), 1 ½ cups 

Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda if you’re British), ½ teaspoon

Cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon

Salt, ½ teaspoon

Butter (cold), 1 – 2 tablespoons. / ½ – 1 ounce

Sharp cheddar, about 4 ounces, grated

Milk, just enough to bring the dry ingredients together

 

Heat the oven to 200 centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. They’re not exact equivalents but try not to think about it. While we’re at it, I used an American-size cup measure, which is a bit different than a British one. The recipe’s forgiving enough that it won’t matter. I don’t bake stuff that isn’t forgiving.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl. I mention the bowl to keep you from gathering them neatly on the floor, which is the other obvious choice. Take a whisk if you have one and whisk it through the bowl (and yes, its contents) a couple of times. This is the lazy cook’s way of not having to sift anything ever again. If you don’t have a whisk, just mix everything together. I doubt anyone will know. Or sift the dry ingredients if it makes you happy. For all I know, it really does make a difference. 

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients. I was taught to do this with two butter knives, one in each hand, which is about as useless a way to break the butter into small chunks as anyone ever invented. These days, I use a pastry blender. Pastry blenders are wonderful. Or you can do it the British way and rub the butter and flour between your fingers until they blend. 

Grate the cheese and stir it in, then stir in the milk, a little at a time, just until you have a dough instead of a bunch of stuff that doesn’t cling together. Don’t add more milk than you have to or unspecified bad things will happen to you, the most likely of which is that your scones will be tough as an old shoe.

Roll the scones out on a floured surface until they’re, um, yeah, just about thick enough. Maybe ¾ inch. Then cut them into rounds. If you don’t have a reasonable size scone / biscuit / cookie cutter, use a glass. Or cut them into any old ragged shape that suits your fancy. They’ll taste the same. Smoosh the leftover bits together, roll them out again, and cut a few more. Repeat until you get to the last one, which never does look as neat as its brethren and sisteren because you have to shape it with your fingers.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes on a greased cookie sheet (I think that’s a baking tray if you’re British), or line one with baking paper. 

They’re best with butter. They’re plenty good without it.

There. You haven’t thought about the virus since we started, have you? 

Sorry–I ate mine before I got the camera out.

Okay, I’ll play fair, briefly. This photo’s supposed to sit in the empty space just above it, but I couldn’t convince it there.

My thanks to April Munday, who mentioned cheese scones in a comment, convincing me that I had to bake some, and to Arlingwoman, who wrote enough about grits to convince me that posting a recipe would be a good idea. If you want to blame someone for me going semi-off topic this way, blame them. If you don’t want to blame them, go visit their blogs. They’re both worth your time.